One of the many things we learn in “Frozen II” — aside from the usual lessons about the nobility of sacrifice, the deceptiveness of appearances and the importance of not shutting out your loved ones — is that water has memory. Water, we’re told, retains traces of every body it passes through and thus can shape itself into a revealing visual echo of what has come before.
Elsa (Idina Menzel), the once-repressed, now-liberated queen of the Nordic kingdom of Arendelle, uses her magical powers to demonstrate this principle. Over the course of the movie she will conjure a series of ice sculptures that essentially serve as illustrative flashbacks, opening windows into the past. At one point those sculptures even come to life and enact moments from the first “Frozen” (2013), including Elsa’s performance of that immortal sub-zero power ballad, “Let It Go.”
Elsa winces in embarrassment at that familiar tune, which is a nice touch — a sly acknowledgment that, yes, even the powers that be at Disney know how sick you must be of that chart-topping, Oscar- and Grammy-winning earworm. This kind of self-awareness can be a tricky proposition; too often it can come across as self-congratulation, especially in movies that exist, like this one, for chiefly mercenary reasons. But the approach mostly works for this sweet, diverting sequel, which understands — in a way that its smash-hit predecessor naturally couldn’t have — just how susceptible the audience might be to “Frozen” fatigue.
The returning directors, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, have thus taken the eminently sensible step of poking good-natured fun at their original creation while also preserving and even maximizing its most durable charms. Like the first film, “Frozen II” is less a triumph of storytelling than of packaging. It bundles together a bunch of familiar, likable characters and a fresh list of bright, catchy songs, expertly written (by the returning duo of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) with an ear toward the Broadway show tunes they will one day inevitably become.
Against the kind of majestic snow-covered backdrop that’s sure to boost hot-chocolate sales at concessions, we are treated once more to the ingenious comic stylings of Olaf (Josh Gad), the sentient snowman who showed up halfway through “Frozen.” This time around, he’s a scene-stealing, joke-dispensing machine from start to finish, and with a pretty good hit-to-miss ratio, judging by the squeals of laughter from my 3-year-old screening companion (and OK, I joined in too).
Less entertaining but no less pleasant are Elsa’s plucky younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), and her ruggedly handsome paramour, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). He spends the entire movie trying and failing to propose marriage, spurring a lot of exasperated reaction shots from his reindeer pal, Sven.
Their latest adventure feels darker yet less consequential than the last one; the mythology is somehow both overly complicated and oddly perfunctory. Really, the plot is mainly an excuse for the characters to hang out. And why not? Sometimes you want to go to a Scandinavian sauna where everybody knows your name. Elsa and her companions may not be the most richly drawn (sorry, computer-animated) characters, but they’re such congenial company that you could happily watch them play charades for two hours, rather than just a brief five-minute stretch at the beginning.
It’s during that parlor game that Elsa receives a haunting, ominous warning that only she can hear. Before long the safety of Arendelle is threatened, forcing a mass exodus and sending our heroes north in search of answers. Their destination is a foggy, autumnal enchanted forest where, some 34 years earlier, the Arendellians sought to make peace with a tribe of magic users known as the Northuldra. But the attempt at a détente failed miserably, and amid the ensuing violence, the forest itself went into lockdown mode, shrouding itself in mist and trapping everyone inside.
What happens next — as our heroes venture “Into the Unknown,” to name the movie’s most infernally catchy tune — at times suggests a PG-rated remake of last year’s horror-thriller “Annihilation.” Don’t be alarmed; there are no killer bears in this one, and no major villains in general. There is a mischievous wind, a cute pyromaniacal lizard and a family of rock monsters who seem to have lumbered in from “The NeverEnding Story.” There are also the usual unsubtle yet hard-to-dispute messages about the inherent treachery of humankind, with its contempt for the environment and its paralyzing fear of what it does not understand.
It’s no spoiler to note that Elsa’s magic, which made her an outcast in the first film, will make her a leader and a unifying force in this one. She remains a memorably intrepid heroine and a striking ideal of female power — living proof that you can command the elements, save your kingdom and look fabulous doing it, especially if your powers include lightning-quick changes of wardrobe.
There’s a mix of kindness and thorniness to Elsa, a refusal to simply smile and go with the flow, that feels pleasingly consistent with the first film. Although no longer forced to hide her powers from the world, she still tends to isolate herself and fight most of her battles alone. And unlike Anna, of course, she continues to show not even the slightest interest in romance, making her a genuinely radical figure among the marrying-kind ranks of most Disney heroines.
Those who have embraced Elsa as a proto-LGBTQ heroine in the first “Frozen” will find further grist for their arguments in “Frozen II.” But I hope they cast an equally appreciative eye on the supporting characters, most of whom manage to upend stereotypes and challenge norms within the parameters of a family-friendly animation.
Olaf, a childlike naif with a grown-up’s talent for self-analysis, is like a walking brief for mental health and positive thinking. And Kristoff, voiced by Broadway star Groff, gets one of the best songs, an ’80s-style rock anthem in which a guy basically admits he needs directions. It’s called “Lost in the Woods,” though I prefer to think of it as “The Iceman Hummeth.”
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Opens Nov. 22 in general release